By Fabrice Stellaire / June 2nd, 2017
DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent oprainfall as a whole.
If you ask people to name good Batman games, most of them will think about the Arkham series. Some may think about the Batman game on the NES or even its Game Boy counterpart, but very few people remember the very first Batman video game. It was published in 1986 by Ocean Software and is quite different from any Batman game made to this day.
This first Batman game was released on microcomputers like the Amstrad CPC 6128, 464, ZX Spectrum and MSX. The plot is not inspired by any movie or any comic (The manual of the game really insists on this point.) and leads Batman to infiltrate a lair owned by the Riddler and the Joker . The two villains do not appear in the game though, and all the enemies you will meet were imagined by the developer. Robin has been kidnapped and Batman must gather the seven pieces of his hovercraft scattered in the lair in order to rescue him. On a side note, it took me years to figure out that Batman was looking for a hovercraft, as my manual only mentioned the “Batcraft”. This unfortunate approximation had me think for years that the Batcraft was an alternate version of the Batmobile until I found out in a Spectrum manual that it was, in fact, a hovercraft.
One thing that will perhaps disappoint players is that Batman does not fight. It is an isometric adventure where Batman must avoid at any cost being touched by enemies. Otherwise, he will lose a life. Deadly traps and enemies are numerous and the difficulty is rather high. The lair is immense (The manual mentioned that it had more than 150 rooms, but after complete runs of the game it seems there were in fact 117 of them in the Amstrad version.) and the player will have to memorize it or draw a map. Back in the 80s, Batman was probably one of the games with the biggest map. That impression of vastness is reinforced by a clever use of the border of the screen, which makes rooms look bigger than they are. Back then, the border of the screen was a dead area in most video games, but Jon Ritman, the game designer, managed to use it to his own advantage to make it look much bigger. In order to make sure the game was playable, Jon Ritman had the game tested by his girlfriend, which would help him to know what was going well and what needed to be improved. The game only had one music track, borrowed from the Adam West Batman series, that started at the beginning of the game and then quickly stopped. The rest of the time, Batman would venture quietly, only followed by the small sound of his own steps.
Despite being unable to fight, Batman was not defenseless and could find a few gadgets that would be needed to progress: the bag allows you to pick items and drop them (most of the time in order to climb), the Bat-Boots allow you to jump, the belt halves speed when falling, and the Bat-Thruster gives horizontal control while falling. Using these gadgets was not always easy and some jumps required high accuracy. Some bonuses allowed Batman to temporarily increase his speed, jump range, earn a bonus life or be invincible, but they were rather scarce. Completing this game was very hard and even after memorizing the whole maze, a player would need a few hours to beat the game. The Spectrum port of the game also featured Bat-Signals that worked as checkpoints and would activate once you picked the item. Unfortunately, not all versions of the game had this feature.
I think this game would deserve to be brought to digital platforms because it really offers some clever level design. Being able to say that a game made in 1986 offers such a big area to explore, with both verticality and horizontality, is not common. A save state feature would probably be enough to make the experience enjoyable for modern players. A release on platforms like Steam or GoG would, I think, be positively received, as the game is quite important in the history of games. Recently we have had many examples of old games brought back to life on GoG, like Silent Service for example. Maybe the game is, in fact, less about Batman (It could have been replaced with a non-licensed character.) than about exploration. One year later, in 1987 Jon Ritman would create Head over Heel, a similar game with even better gameplay. Ocean Software was later bought by Infogrames and then, in 2004, by Atari, so I am not really sure who owns the copyrights of this game currently. A non-official remake was released on PC, but I prefer the art of the original game.